Vehicle recalls are regularly in the news, warning of inadvertent airbag deployments, faulty door latches, even risks of fire, not to mention the ongoing Takata airbag recall that dwarfs all others.
But the steady stream of recalls masks the fact that about 30% of recalled vehicles remain unrepaired on Amerca's roads, according to federal statistics.
Last year was a record for U.S. vehicle recalls — more than 53 million in 927 separate recalls — but those numbers are only the latest, with the total number of recalls increasing in each year back to 2011 when the number stood at 13.6 million, according to information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
There are numerous reasons recalled vehicles go unrepaired even though getting them fixed does not cost the vehicle owner. These range from perceptions about the severity of the recall to a lack of available parts — some dealers also sell used cars with open recalls — but often vehicle owners may simply not know that their vehicle is under recall.
"The greatest challenge is making contact with the current owner of the vehicle. Vehicles may change hands many times over their lifecycle," according to Mark Chernoby, chief technical compliance officer for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which is involved in two different programs to notify vehicle owners about recalls.
FCA recently announced it is working with repair estimate company CCC Information Services to notify owners of FCA vehicles involved in the Takata recall when they bring the vehicles in to collision repair shops. So far, 56,000 have been identified. CCC says it is also working with Honda on a similar program. The Takata recall involves 19 automakers and affects 42 million vehicles.
With notification being such a key roadblock in the recall process, a logical starting point for resolving the issue would seem to be the agency with the most information about what people drive, namely each state's department of motor vehicles, a function that in Michigan falls under the Secretary of State.
Interestingly, only one state — Maryland — applied for a U.S. Department of Transportation grant to notify consumers of open recalls when they register their vehicles. Starting in April, the Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration, with assistance from Cox Automotive, will launch its two-year pilot program, thanks to a $222,300 federal grant announced last month.
For Chrissy Nizer, administrator of Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration, providing recall information is a natural extension of her agency's mission to promote safety. Drivers, including those with young children, would likely appreciate getting recall information through their registration renewal paperwork.
Maryland's program is simply a notification. It will not prevent someone from renewing a registration.
"We felt like it was a good way to be able to provide information to the customer (so they can) hopefully be able to act on it quickly and get it resolved," Nizer said.
Maryland's philosophy on recall information, however, is markedly different from that of Michigan, where Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, focused on who is ultimately responsible.
“We view it as a manufacturer’s responsibility to notify owners of a recall and also, at least in the short term, it would be … burdensomely costly to the department to participate," Woodhams said, acknowledging that the department was aware of the grant program, but saying it has no plans to participate in the near future. “(Automakers are) the ones that made the car in the first place."
Woodhams said he did not know how much a program like Maryland's would cost in Michigan.
In Maryland, Nizer said the federal grant will pay for the data collection that will be needed. She said there would be no additional costs for notification because the forms that are sent out already exist.
Nizer declined to weigh in on why another state might have decided not to apply for the grant, but she said the program will not absolve anyone of potential responsibility.
“Certainly, the manufacturers have a role to play in recall information and that will continue." Nizer said. "We are not taking responsibility from the manufacturer."
Ian Grossman, vice president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, suggested that such differences in philosophy could have something to do with what each office is facing in terms of workload demands.
All state motor vehicle administrators are concerned about the safety impact of vehicle recalls, even the ones that are not currently taking active roles such as in the case of the Maryland effort, said Grossman, noting also that some states may want to see the results of the Maryland program before starting their own.
Alex Epstein, senior director of digital strategy and content for the nonprofit National Safety Council, said two additional states, Kentucky and Florida, are developing their own campaigns related to recall notification, although details have not been released.
The National Safety Council is working with FCA and the National Automobile Dealers Association on a national outreach campaign to notify owners if their vehicles are under recall. The group has set up a website that redirects to the NHTSA web page where owners can check for recalls by entering their vehicle identification number.
The campaign is focused on drivers of vehicles that are at least five years old or those who drive used cars. The website notes that the "recall compliance rate is only 44% for these vehicles compared to 83% for newer vehicles."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry advocacy group, provided a copy of the results of a national online survey in 2015 of 1,500 vehicle owners. The survey asked respondents about factors that influence recalls and noted what types of owners have their vehicles fixed.
The survey found that 64% of owners who had received a recall notice in the previous one to two years had repaired their vehicles. Of the others who had received a notice, 31% planned to have their vehicle repaired, but 5% did not intend to do so.
The survey also found that the more severe the issue prompting the recall, the more likely owners would be to have their vehicle fixed. Owners of new vehicles were more likely than owners of used vehicles to have their vehicles repaired.
Consumer advocate John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project, said that he believes the efforts to notify drivers of recalls have improved in recent years, noting the unprecedented scale of the Takata airbag recall, which has its own update area on NHTSA's webpage. The company's airbags, which could explode, may have been responsible for 16 deaths.
Simpson said that traditionally, getting the word from manufacturers to consumers about recalls could be problematic. He said the FCA efforts are positive, and he offered particular kudos to the State of Maryland for its recall notification plans, while criticizing Michigan's approach as "wrongheaded."
"Anything that encourages awareness about this is good," Simpson said.
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.
How to check if your vehicle is under recall
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a webpage — https://www.nhtsa.gov/recalls — that allows owners to enter their vehicle identification number to see whether their vehicle is under a recall. The site also includes a description of how to find the VIN. NHTSA also launched a reminder effort on recalls tied to the end of Daylight Saving Time this year — https://www.nhtsa.gov/press-releases/us-dot-reminds-public-check-recalls-clocks-fall-back
Increasing numbers of recalls
The number of vehicle recalls has been increasing. Below is a list of the last five years, along with the number of recalls each year and the number of vehicles affected:
2012: 582 recalls; 16,486,229 vehicles
2013: 629 recalls; 20,260,191 vehicles
2014: 775 recalls; 50,227,771 vehicles
2015: 869 recalls; 51,063,372 vehicles
2016: 927 recalls; 53,194,177 vehicles